“How dare you?”
These are almost the last words my friend Surekha said to me, in a text message. I had LOL’d. She said, “I’ll see you soon dude.” She had just moved to Bombay, from Delhi.
That was on 16th May 2021, a year into the pandemic. In lockdown, the world was a mythic landscape; a marauding dacoit had galloped into the village to find a vast quiet as we hid in our homes. Heat claimed the roads in a stifling embrace. There was no post, no deliveries, no easy groceries, no vaccines, no information on the precise dangers of the new virus. We sanitized surfaces and vegetables and spread them out, leaf by leaf, to dry. We learned to bake our own bread. From March 12 to August 16, I did not meet a single human being except the grocery shop owner.
It was a picture of one such lockdown baking extravaganza—khachapuri, an Armenian breakfast delicacy—that I had sent Surekha, eliciting her faux outrage. “How dare you?” was something Surekha said often: if you looked good in a new nose-ring, if you wrote something that made her cry, if you posted pictures of food that made her mouth water. How dare you look so beautiful, move me so much, tempt me with delicious things and not be nearby so I can partake. This angular affection, an extravagant scolding or a mock-insult to express a rush of love, is the ultimate and confusing-to-others Indian demonstration of apnapan, or a sense of being one another’s someone, designation unknown, and unimportant: an other significant. How dare you simply meant the opposite: you must be beautiful and mouth-watering and brilliant, especially when it serves no purpose. Because pleasure dares to be only its own instrument. And it was the instrument that Surekha used to bind her in intimacy with absolute strangers.
But we did not see each other again. Less than a month later, Surekha died, in the second, or Delta, wave of covid. It was a gloomy monsoon day, a dramatic cliche Surekha would have loved. A tidal wave of mourning flooded Twitter and someone dredged up an old tweet of hers: “people saying such nice things about those who have died, makes me want to die too so they say nice things about me.” Well, she had her wish. How dare you? I wanted to say to her.
A few people messaged me: “Who was Surekha? She seems to have been very famous,” “Everyone seemed to know her, but what was she famous for?” I answered them in my weekly column: Surekha was famous for being Surekha. She had occupied no position or affiliation to anything except being a person, engaging with an endless variety of other persons, as if insisting on something: who else must one be to be mourned? Who else must one be to count?
That was a question that echoed through that mythic landscape of India too: who must one be to count? And therefore, to be counted, among the suffering and the dead?
In March 2020, a summary lockdown was announced with a few hours’ notice. A prime ministerial address commanded citizens to gather on their balconies and ring bells and clang steel vessels. A tableau of Indians united against corona, were to exhort public health workers much as medieval women celebrated warriors going to battle.
The lockdown left thousands of migrant workers stranded in cities, with no food, work, or arrangements for them to go home. Desperate, they began to walk. Those stark lines of exodus became an abiding image of India’s lockdown and of a global economy that creates and is sustained by these shadowy figures—the uncounted, the undocumented. “We would rather die at home with our own people than alone in the city here,” some said. Some did die along the way, but officially, there was no count of how many.
When the issue was raised in the September 2020 session of Parliament, the Labour Ministry said, “The question of compensation does not arise because there is No Data.” The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare also had No Data on the numbers of healthcare staff affected by or dead from covid. The Home Ministry said there was No Data on how many police officials had died during covid duties. The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment reported they had no data on how COVID-19 has affected safai karamcharis dealing with waste. If there is No Data on you, where do you belong—in the land of the living or in the land of the dead? Whose people are you? And how should you be mourned? Wahan Kaun Hai Tera?
No official message of compassion was ever delivered, as is customary in times of grief. Compassion is after all the acknowledgement that data exists, even if data is not collected.
Data had been collected by those who saw the dead as their own. The Indian Medical Association announced that 382 doctors aged 27-85 had died from COVID-19. The Stranded Workers Action Network put migrant deaths at 972 until July 4, 2020. In the state of Maharashtra, of the 20,367 police personnel struck by COVID-19, 208 died.
To anyone who brought up this data, right-wing supporters responded with “how dare you?” To talk of death and misfortune was to discredit the nation, making you anti-national. These deaths were not to be mourned. They were examples of unruly citizens. They had walked away from the disciplinary fantasy of a united India and toward those for whom they counted, and had accordingly met their deserved end.
In 2021, the Delta wave overtook India. The deaths were uncountable. The grief could perhaps be counted, in cascading cries for help online: for oxygen cylinders, hospital beds, medicines, sometimes followed by a heart-stopping “never mind, the patient has expired.” Numbers could be intuited in the drone images of funeral grounds. Vast grids of burning pyres and long lines of corpses awaiting their turn for cremation. The most striking of these were taken by Danish Siddiqui, a photographer with Reuters Press.
For some, these photographs were not a smoldering expanse of tragedy but a burning conspiracy theory. Many right-wing supporters denounced them as malicious lies from a Muslim—lies defaming a nation rising from the ashes of a past in which it was enslaved to liberal thought.
Danish Siddiqui died while shooting the Taliban offensive in Afghanistan that July. Someone tweeted “I feel no mourning & grievance (sic) with the death of Siddiqui.” Many from the right wing celebrated Siddiqui’s death with glee. No official statement on the passing of a Pulitzer Prize-winning Indian was issued either, as has been customary for the Indian state. The compulsory excitement of a grand nation erasing its corrupt past—corrupted by contradiction, multiplicity, and heterogeneity—has made mourning a selective affair.
The right wing saw the mourning for the numberless dead as performative, as liberal instrumentality. The liberal left wing, it felt, counted the pyres of the dead, only to keep the fires of hating the ruling party alive. Was there truth in that? Was mourning an ideological proxy for liberals? When they castigated the government, were they in fact, actually always mourning their lost primacy as the central elites of independent India until the rise of the right-wing elite?
When politics operates in polarities, is there a language to mourn the dead that is not “politicized”? And what might the politics and ethics be, not of, but arising from, such a language? What kind of ethical self-conception of being Indian might it offer? With those questions, musafir, jaayega kahan?
An element of insincerity is present at all funerals. Those who establish false intimacies when the dead cannot contradict them and those who aggrandize themselves while expressing regret stand alongside those who hold a hand in compassionate silence. But, while the fact of commiseration may not be sincere, the act of commiseration nevertheless acknowledges something crucial. In recognizing another’s grief and loss, we bear witness to the worlds within us that cannot be documented or categorized. We acknowledge our qualitative selves, not just our countable identities, where we are data. The world of the emotions demands a politics uncontainable in citizenship, a relationality not contained in actual relationships. Multiple answers to the question wahan kaun hai tera?
Grief grew in concentric circles and we spent the days typing “so sorry for your loss” in social media comments. But covid deaths passed without traditional funerals or gatherings of grief. A man who had lost his spouse said to me, “Sometimes I wonder have I really moved on this fast or will it all emerge later? When death is happening to everyone and your suffering is one of many sufferings, and when you yourself must focus on staying alive, and survival is a literal, daily struggle, mourning isn’t quite like what we recognize as mourning.”
When Surekha died, a Zoom memorial was held. Surekha was the first and only friend I made “from Twitter” where she was one of the popular kids on the playground. Surekha loved trees, nosepins, cooking, Peter Pan collars, poetry, her daughter, fried fish and beef roast, Miyazaki, music, bearded men, puns, and people. She shared this love extravagantly and made people a part of its enjoyment. She shared people’s art and writing fulsomely. She periodically shared hugs online, even asking who needed one, which seemed weirdly meaningful instead of cheesy. She teased and praised and drew people into a circle, where they also, often, came to love each other.
As we became more intimate, I learned that Surekha was mourning her own losses—of a child, of another life in the corporate world—and that her commitment to pleasure and community was a kind of self-healing, a way to salve her own sadness through emphatic and willful joy. Twitter had been a refuge for her. But as its algorithmic polarities grew, she was ill at ease with political discussions there. She sometimes felt poorly informed, sometimes unfairly judged. She was suspicious of activism and political proclamations. She saw them as virtue signaling and bristled against them as one might at insincere condolences.
In the winter of 2019, large protests began against a new Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that was meant to create a register of illegal migrants, a dog-whistle to deem minorities, especially Muslims, false citizens. The protests were driven by affected communities, not ideological activists alone. This made them polyphonic, heterogenous, and not very pure. There were nationalisms, biryani, rose sherbet, Valentine’s Day, religious ceremonies, student activists, and acerbic older women in the mix. The long sit-ins turned into communes welcoming a tremendous variety of people, from farmers’ unions to artists to individual citizens, each contributing to the space in quite different ways. One of those citizens, to my surprise, was Surekha. She live-tweeted protests and fundraised. She famously pretended to be the mother of a student who kept getting arrested, more than once. She rushed headlong into this emotionally saturated political world, with its multiple entry points and untidy connections, more fluid than the modular feeds of social media connectivity undergirded by an algorithmic sorting. She renewed herself through a kind of vastly open political-ness.
Her Zoom memorial was attended by a variety of people from her polyglot life. The quietly grieving, the copiously weeping, the insincere, former friends, political enemies all gathered together till the middle of the night. Our agreements and disagreements sat alongside our mourning, neither forgotten, nor observed.
It reminded me, quite strangely, of a 2006 meeting with a right-wing activist, Sandeep Pahal, while I was shooting my film Morality TV and the Loving Jihad: A Thrilling Tale in Meerut. Pahal was a member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a fundamentalist group, fermenting an early theory of Love Jihad—a conspiracy theory about Muslim men ensnaring Hindu women. “Everything in Meerut is about Hindu Muslim, let me say straight,” Pahal had said. “It’s not that love is not allowed in Hinduism, but it’s a different method. Parents can love their children, students can love their books.” How should one love people, beyond these permissible affiliations? This was a messy question and he did not quite answer it, though he did not deny its validity.
At the end of the shoot Pahal served us tea, in the home’s best china. “Have you eaten the famous alu pakoras on Kutchery Road yet?” We confirmed they were the best we had ever eaten. “Then I must get you some. And you must not leave without lunch—sarson ka saag and makki ki roti. You’ve come in winter after all.”
At that moment in time, and perhaps at that moment in history, Pahal’s affiliation and obligation was not only to his right-wing organization, nor was our relationship only professional, as film crew and interview subject. We were also host and guest. His cultural identity also involved mehmannawazi, hospitality to guests, a fundamental South Asian practice. (It is not uncommon to find South Asians complaining about the West’s cold and stingy notion of hospitality.) This moment was full of a strange ambiguity. Accepting his hospitality also compelled us to see him, not just as a fundamentalist but as a gracious host. That hot food and those multiple meanings asked for a new political language.
In retrospect I somewhat mourn (sincerely) this porous moment of ambiguity, before affiliation of identity with ideology became so rigid that all other definitions of being Indian, all other ways of being oneself had to cede territory.
Perhaps that is too sentimental. Perhaps it is not even permissible. Yet, how should we dare to be sad again? Let us count the ways. At the end of those ways, will we find each other again?
Cover image by Samina Mishra, courtesy of the photographer.